Go Ahead, Give In

Cravings are common. Here are clever ways to satisfy them without going overboard.

It's been another one of those days: places to go, deadlines to meet, meals to cook. You find yourself daydreaming about crisp, salty potato chips. Pretty soon it's an insistent, must-have-it-now craving, and before you know it, your hand is deep in the bag.

Rather than berate your lack of willpower, once in a while, indulge yourself. In a 2007 Tufts University study of healthy women, 91 percent reported having food cravings (which the researchers define as an intense desire to eat a specific food). In other words, cravings are common, and the key to successful weight management, experts say, is learning to address cravings rather than always deny them.

"You first have to accept that having cravings is normal, but you don’t have to give in to every one," says Tufts study coauthor Susan Roberts, PhD. "The people in our research who manage their weight the best are not those who crave foods less often but those who give in some of the time."

Trigger happy

Brian Wansink, PhD, director of Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab and author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, has made a career of studying people’s behavior relating to food. He says cravings fall into two basic categories: snacks (with potato chips, ice cream, cookies, and chocolate leading the list) and meal foods (pizza, pasta, burgers, casseroles, and the like). Which comfort food you choose can be affected by age and gender.

"Women tend to crave sweet stuff, men salty stuff," Roberts says. "And premenstrual women’s cravings are more likely to be insistent." What triggers a food longing? Hormonal fluctuations are thought to be the cause in premenstrual women, though no one knows for sure, says Roberts. Other theories include a physical need for calories and emotional cues.

"If you haven’t eaten for hours and you’re really hungry, that is a physical craving, and you should eat," says Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA, RD, CDN, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.

Emotional yens, on the other hand, may be set off by almost anything: a song, a person, a feeling, a situation that’s associated with a particular food―any reminder can kick a hankering into gear, "even if you’re not hungry," Taub-Dix says. Although stress is a commonly cited culprit, research shows that positive events trigger cravings even more than negative feelings, says Wansink. "In one of our studies, we rigged games so that people would either succeed or lose, and we found that they ended up having a stronger craving when they won." 

Read more for six strategies for handling cravings.

 

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